A Is For... In this playful and affecting group exhibition curated by Gina Alvarez, the relationship between art-making and child-rearing is explored through that fundamental building block of communication: the alphabet. Twenty-six local artists were each assigned one letter as point of departure and, often in collaboration with their offspring and spouse, off they went. John Sarra has crafted a low-lying table with F's for legs; Lindsey Obermeyer embroiders a swarm of H's in the manner of old Americana; architect Matthew Jeans contributes a massive K made of engineered Plexiglas of the type used for building models; Jim Ibur crafts a porcelain vase full of eyes (for I). The array of materials and approaches are as diverse as the artists' concisely written reflections on their lives as parents. Tom Huck contributes a linocut tattoo design for one of his fictional characters (a crossed devil's tail that forms an X) and admits to envying his daughter for her imagination. His wife, Anne Teeger Huck, goes the linocut route as well, rendering swirling words that begin with Q — a nod to inquisitiveness that complements her assertion that her kids bring her back to the most basic joy of making art: beginning with a simple line. Eric Repice builds a massive M from handmade paper, explaining that he often borrows art supplies from his daughter. The list goes on, with letter-bearing gems contributed by John Early, Jana Harper, Robert Longyear, Jason Hoeing, Dionna and Daniel Raedeke, Ken Wood, Amy Rosen and more (not to mention a poster by Eric Woods of Firecracker Press). Through August 13 at the Millstone Gallery at COCA, 524 Trinity Avenue, University City; 314-725-6555 or www.cocastl.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation A giant stuffed chick, slumped and vomiting on itself while straddling an enormous rocket; a large stuffed lobster, its heavy claws flopped over what appears to be the base of a chic, modern table; two tires trapped in a custom, wall-hanging white cage: Scale is everything — a means to the humorous and pathetic alike — for German conceptual artist Cosima von Bonin. In this mini-survey of work from the past ten years, certain material themes re-emerge — fabric, most significantly, and music-related electronics — as well as situational ones — the flaccid, the frayed, the privately composed. In von Bonin's world everyone has a theme song, often of a looped and electronic variety, optimally heard through large headphones. Sound works by her collaborator, electronic music producer Moritz von Oswald, accompany nearly every piece. Dense with stuff, the exhibit takes on a new dimension: With its mildly bubbly, mildly hypnotic score, it begins to feel like a high-end boutique, artfully staged and filled with desirable objects. Here's where von Bonin excels: "appropriating" the motifs that are so common to our everyday experience that they're no longer recognizable, and reconfiguring them in odd, endearing and darkly comic ways. And how tired it leaves us — like that big chick, sick and hanging its head. Through August 1 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Forsyth & Skinker boulevards (on the campus of Washington University); 314-935-4523 or www.kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu. Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily (closed Tue., open till 8 p.m. Fri.).
Cryptic: The Use of Allegory in Contemporary Art with a Master Class from Goya Taking the late surreally satiric prints by Francisco Goya as a point of departure, guest curator Laura Steward presents six contemporary artists as inheritors of the historic trope of the use of allegory. A tone of febrile foreboding is set from the get-go: At the entrance to the exhibition is a life-size, wild-eyed ape by Folkert de Jong, carved out of foam-core, dripped in oil-black paint and grinning widely, with a sidekick of sorts clinging to his back. In the next gallery, these same apes dance in an enormous ring, their elusive Cheshire gazes mirrored in two paintings by Allison Schulnik, "portraits" of demurely poised apes similarly slathered in inky and skin-like reticulating paint layers. Selections from Goya's "Los Caprichos" and "Los Disparates" frame these works in a tradition of dark satire: the ape appearing again, for instance, in an etching where he's painting the portrait of an ass. In the adjacent gallery, Erika Wanenmacher's truly horrifying human figures — one made of crudely stitched-together coyote coats, another pierced through with glass eyes — propose yet another fatalistic comment on the state of man. Their harrowing presences draw out the darker dimensions of Dana Schutz's oddly comic work — lush paintings of figures devouring or subjecting themselves to assorted forms of self-debasement. Bookending the exhibit are two films: one by Hiraki Sawa featuring a dreamlike interior haunted by the shadows of miniature carnival animals; and one by Javier Tellez in which the ancient allegory of six blind men describing an elephant is reinterpreted in contemporary New York. This closing work by Tellez holds the most optimism: The six New Yorkers approach the enormous animal with an affirming curiosity regarding the unknown — perhaps the most benevolent of human capacities: that of wonder. Through August 14 at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard; 314-535-4660 or www.contemporarystl.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
Currents 105: Ian Monroe Washington University alum Ian Monroe returns as this year's Freund Fellow, exhibiting a new body of work inspired by Minoru Yamasaki's original 1956 design for Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Using sheets of aluminum, upon which pristinely cut pieces of colored vinyl are applied, these austere, painterly collages depict a nearly obsolete culture of flight populated by immaculate fountains, phone banks, lounges and business-attired travelers. Scenes of the architect and his design team at work, pens in hand and sleeves rolled up, appear as abstract reductions of original archival photographs. Monroe's slick renditions heighten the original utopian ambitions for the terminal. While perhaps it's difficult to recall amid an era of groping security checks and dim anxiety, traveling by air was once a crowning progressive achievement. Monroe's works are rife with nostalgia for this older era's Modernist faith in technology, his attentive craftsmanship and bold, midcentury palette drawing out the timelessness of its design. The exhibit — which includes a large-scale sculptural installation — exudes a material presence that complements the stuff of the airport accoutrements depicted, aligning itself in tactile spirit with this pre-digital culture of architecture and design. Through July 31 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive (in Forest Park); 314-721-0072 or www.slam.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.)
Dreamscapes This exhibit subtly trains the viewer to navigate the Pulitzer's inimitable space as though it were an exquisite dream recalled. De Chirico's Transformed Dream sets the stage: a train in the painting's high horizon line directing one to unforeseeable locales. Nearby sits a piece by Janet Cardiff: a black rotary phone you pick up to hear the voice of the artist relaying her dreams. A golden, recumbent Brancusi head rests on a plinth, while at the gallery's far end, Magritte's Invisible World hints at a watery vista beyond its French doors and the imposing gray stone that blocks them. Here is where you reach the hinge in this surreal sonnet: Arriving at the Pulitzer's water court, you see Magritte's stone in solid form: Scott Burton's Rock Settee, which overlooks the narrow, placid reflecting pool and a swath of city beyond. Only now do you pause to consider the multitude of portentous cues inhabiting the masterworks curator Francesca Herndon-Consagra has assembled, transforming the museum into a dreamlike tableau vivant. Highlights include Do Ho Suh's diaphanous fabric staircase to nowhere, two late, dark paintings by Philip Guston, an early suite of Max Klinger's "Glove" etchings and the nebulous Wolfgang Tillmans forestscape that marks the dream's end. (A series of programs exploring the exhibition's theme will unfold through the spring and summer, on Saturdays at 1 p.m.) Through August 13 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Boulevard; 314-754-1850 or www.pulitzerarts.org. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.
Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre This suite of 58 etchings by the anomalous French-Catholic artist George Rouault was created between 1914 and 1927, while the artist witnessed the ravages of World War I. They're once again on view, testing the durability of their impact and their consideration as the masterwork of their maker. Formerly a stained-glass artisan, Rouault employs a heavy black outline that, when liberated from metal and glass, wavers with crude sincerity and expressive imprecision. The figures in this series — often depicted in intimate or solitary groups against depthless backdrops — are saturated in deep, sooty tones of a sort that only printmaking can create. A liturgical sensibility suffuses the pieces, beyond outright biblical allusions; all subjects appear frozen in mute pantomime of every heavier variety of suffering, their bodies arced in symbolic gestures of penance or endurance of man's plight. While Rouault never fit comfortably in any of the codified artistic movements of his time, it's clear that his influence was felt among German Expressionists — Max Beckmann particularly. That said, Rouault is utterly his own — creating a strange, wrought world of Christ figures, carnival clowns, kings and weary skeletons cloaked in every black shade. Through July 31 at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, 3700 West Pine Boulevard (on the Saint Louis University campus); 314-977-7170 or http://mocra.slu.edu. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Sun.
Günther Herbst Blending the seemingly irreconcilable — high art and the economically disenfranchised — British artist Günther Herbst paints small, nearly photorealistic still lifes depicting the makeshift structures that shelter London's homeless. In Tottenham Court Road, the oil-on-board painting that's the exhibition's sole point of focus, an abandoned cardboard shelter capitulates to its own vulnerability, buckling under the weightless strain of autumn leaves and assorted blown refuse. Vacillating among meticulous realism, brushy expressionism, and Mondrian-hued geometric abstraction, the otherwise diminutive work capaciously embraces a wide amalgam of stylistic approaches, each bearing the freight of its own historic and theoretical associations. Close consideration (as this deliberately isolating venue invites) may allow for more inspection than the work can bear. Enjoying the aesthetic merits and art-historic pastiche of this undeniably skillful painting feels, well, wrong in light of its subject matter — as though one has unwittingly become complicit in an even larger lampoon of the politically aloof art world itself. What exactly would be the ultimate outcome of this work? Activism? That nebulously heightened state of being called "awareness"? Whatever the case, Herbst has succeeded in reopening the whole can of worms. Through August 11 at Isolation Room/Gallery Kit, 5723 Dewey Avenue; 314-660-6295 or www.isolationroom-gallerykit.com. Hours: by appointment.
Jim Schmidt Presents: Abstraction Former gallery owner Jim Schmidt applies his singularly discerning eye for all modes of abstraction in this guest-curated group exhibition of paintings, works on paper and a select few sculptures. Drawing from an impressive range of well-established to niche and up-and-coming artists, the exhibit presents a thorough excavation of the nebulous term "abstract," examining its every iteration, from procedural and calculating to immediate and expressionistic. The human form is clearly evident in Tendon Block by Jill Downen, a truncated piece of undulating white gypsum in her signature, suggestive style. The spirit of nature, in the sense of landscapes or unmitigated forces, informs Eva Lundsager's exuberant watercolor — saturated with lush, incendiary hues, a horizon line vaguely discernible from which a volcanic profusion cathartically spews. Several of Erik Spehn's meticulous and austere paintings punctuate the show, serving as tempered counter-arguments in their white-on-white restraint. Sue Eisler's elegant geometric sculpture, wrought expertly from bronze-oxidized wire, draws vantage points through which other works can be viewed. Among many highlights are a black-and-white graphite and crayon drawing by Terry Winters, Max Cole's painting of darkly studied linearity, two pink-saturated drawings of perfectly chaotic scribbles by Carroll Dunham and a near toss-away of a sketch by Jonathan Lasker in which looping ballpoint-pen marks crown looping Sharpie marks. Through July 30 at Philip Slein Gallery, 1319 Washington Avenue; 314-621-4634 or www.philipsleingallery.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Larry Fink: Attraction and Desire — 50 Years in Photography This generous survey of the notable Brooklyn-born artist reaffirms the durable pleasures of black-and-white figural photography. A nimble chronicler of society's more extreme coteries, Fink moved among New York beatniks, Vegas gamblers, mid-century jazz musicians, the young Mike Tyson and other boxing strivers, rural Pennsylvanians and the lacquered elite of fashion, art and Hollywood. His preference for Caravaggio-esque high contrast dramatizes what is essentially an obsession with fugitive detail: the long, alabaster, manicured hands of a man clutching the back of a black-dressed blonde; a silver radiator in an angled swath of daylight; the heavy-lidded eyes of a lone woman in a crowd at the Cedar Bar; drops of rain on the black sedan bearing Coretta Scott King to the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. It would be easy to marvel at the fabled personalities and events chronicled here, but Fink's most anonymous subjects serve as the firmest testament to his peculiar eye — a complex gaze that is at once empathetic, excoriating and salacious. Intimate and disarmingly wearied self-portraits of himself, his wife, his child and dogs reframe a narrative that might otherwise tip completely into an obsession with cultural novelty. In the end, the show functions much like that other beleaguered medium — the novel — telling stories about living, loving and other less conclusive failures. Through August 20 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or www.sheldonconcerthall.org. Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m.
The Lonely Rainbow Few artists have as distinct and unswerving a gift for recorded sincerity as St. Louis-based Peter Pranschke. He's easily identified by his draftsmanship: drawings influenced by classic comic books in which he portrays himself in seemingly infinite configurations of all-too-human compromise. But Pranschke's not limited to drawings; he has produced pieces out of spliced Bible pages, found erasers, dental floss, tree branches, Band-Aids and, in this case, sleeping bags and old books — all of which manage to embody the sensitivity and personality of the artist. As the exhibit's title suggests, an air of semisweet melancholy pervades. First comes a comic strip in which Pranschke recounts his initial ambition to have every piece in the show match the dark-green hue of the Sheldon gallery's carpet, his failure to have done so and his and apologetic caveat that these works are a departure from his usual self-portraits — these, he states, are fragmentary narratives drawn from life but shattered so as to become unrecognizable. The disarming intro likewise detonates any straightforward approach to "reading" the exhibit. Thereafter unfolds a half-blindly optimistic, half-doomed series of scenes rendered on green grid paper in colored pencil. A workday lunch break, the checkout lane in an art-supply store, an office cubicle, a sidewalk gathering of smokers outside a gallery opening — all banal on the surface but truncated in key areas to suggest that, sadly, everything is not quite right. Interspersed between the drawings are needle-point images stitched into swaths of old dishtowels or napkins and simply titled Sleeping Bag. An enormous green sleeping bag with smoke rings stitched in bisects the exhibit like a hinge — or perhaps the big sleep made wryly manifest. Through September 10 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or www.sheldonconcerthall.org. Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.
Take 4 Drawing together otherwise radically disparate practices, this minimalist, elegant show highlights the elemental restraint and conceptual confidence shared in the work of local artists Juan William Chavez, Greg Edmondson, Jamie Kreher and Brett Williams. Chavez uses promotional shots from the dystopic 1980s sci-fi flick Blade Runner as his substrate and obscures the imagery in black charcoal dust and intuitive, iridescent brush marks; the effect is like a counter-clockwise historical loop, moving the items from their futuristic source back to the primeval theater of the cave. Edmondson's work has a raw simplicity that complements Chavez's appropriations, contributing delicate, abstract pencil renderings that alternately recall the patterns of nature or suburban sprawl; etched in small, fine lines, their arterial branches waver between cool precision and an apparent hand at work. Kreher has enlarged one of her signature portraits of architectural banality, focusing on a set of glass entrance/exit doors. Stacked and repeated on an enormous sheet of vinyl, the image takes on a more ominous dimension, suggesting ubiquitous surveillance or the overwhelming excess of similar nowhere zones in America. A colorful foil to all the rest, Williams' two videos (Blur 1 and Blur 2) feature bright-hued haloed lights that throb and flicker to an ambient soundscape. One is viewable on a flat video screen, while the other is projected from the gallery floor beneath an air duct grate. Both are evocative of memory's impressionistic focus — more sensory than specific — and lend an elegiac air to the exhibit, which seems, as a whole, bound by various forms of absence and attendant nostalgia. Currently showing at PSTL Gallery at Pace Framing, 3842 Washington Boulevard; 314-531-4304 or www.paceframing.com. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Tom of Finland A self-taught Finnish native who sought creative refuge in 1960s Los Angeles, where he was able, miraculously, to make a living drafting pencil-rendered cartoons of eroticized gay machismo, Tom of Finland straddled taboo and popular appeal long before the likes of Madonna and Lady Gaga. A former anti-aircraft officer and commercial illustrator, Tom (a.k.a. Touko Laaksonen) harnessed essential qualities from both fields, making uniformed dress as suggestive as negligee and a clear, graphic line evocative of Norman Rockwell, Marvel comics, Vargas Girls and Warholian Pop Art. In this exhibit of his relentlessly simple and strangely delicate drawings, finished works are interspersed between incomplete sketches. Square-jawed males with barrel chests, broad shoulders, petite waists and other proportional impossibilities appear in solitary, glorified repose or explicit couplings. Yes, the work was made to titillate — but hell, so was most Greek and Roman art. And like his classical forebears, Tom graces every male figure (and Tom's is a male-only universe) with a placid, enlightened-looking smile. The finished works exhibited here are much more demure than the sketches, the more overt sexual acts receding beneath dim erasures and incomplete limbs while suggestive gazes, sawed-off logs and rakishly angled sailor caps resonate in full black-and-white detail. This is where the work rises above genre: it's sheer bizarreness. In a motorcyclist's tilted hat, a single rolled-down leather boot or an outfit consisting of white gym socks and high-top sneakers, a microcosm of style and desire is written. How Tom's beefcake homoeroticism became a standard-issue brand is another story — but such is the course of any enduring style. Through August 6 at phd Gallery, 2300 Cherokee Street; 314-664-6644 or www.phdstl.com. Hours: noon-4 p.m. Thu.-Sun. and by appointment.
What's the Use? This affecting two-person show by local artist Wonder Koch and New York-based Eliza Newman-Saul presents an elegant ode to life's inanity in the manner of High Romantic humanism at its concise and philosophical best. Newman-Saul contributes a series of large-scale pencil drawings of massive sinking ships. From a distance they appear like old black-and-white photographs, but upon closer inspection they reveal a peculiar, wavering hand that almost colors in the image's tonal gradients and allows all incidental handprints to remain, like marks of humility or deep resignation to the inaccessibility of any manner of success. Accompanying these works is a lilting video of a man scouring the Coney Island beachfront with a metal detector. His quest, too, appears wholly quixotic, inviting the viewer to see more merit in the odd beauty of his movements and the video's haunting, bell-like score. Koch's pieces act as the straight men to her co-artist's more languorous proposals. Handcrafting a series of flags, she creates a world of awkwardly proclaimed defeat — a profusion of tiny red flags bursting from a white gallery wall, their small poles made of twigs, their pennants made of deflated balloons, tufts of felt and sections of red labels scavenged from streets. In a rear, cordoned-off area of the gallery dangles a white flag made from the white stripes of American flags, stitched with the words "you win" in yellow fabric. In the gallery window hangs a medieval-style flag in black with red letters that read "It's Too Late." Not all is deadly serious, here, but nor is it all crass sarcasm. Both artists seem to celebrate something historical about the world's long, sad story — reaching back to the patient media of pencil and needle while starkly confronting, with sober if winking clarity, the horrific spectacle of failure, observable from nearly any angle. Through August 1 at Snowflake, 3156 Cherokee Street; www.snowflakestl.com. Hours: by appointment only.